Among the Ruins

“At present Franklin Street and Congress Street and Summer Street and Winthrop Square have less to show for their former splendor than the Street of Plenty in Pompeii.”

Since Boston was fated to burn, I think any one may blamelessly regret that he was not by to see it, if he had the misfortune to be absent during the red thirty hours of its loss. As a spectacle, it must have been one of the most impressive that human eyes ever beheld, and those who looked upon it are truly to be envied. That steady and resistless destruction of the finest business architecture on the continent, by flames that melted the piles of solid granite like sand, and consumed the prosperity of long years of successful commerce, lacked the dramatic poignancy of most other great conflagrations; comparatively few homes were burned, there was little of the agony of attempts to save things dear by use and association, or of the sacrifice of what nothing could buy again but as those millions of money were licked up by the fire and vanished forever in the crimson glare and dusky fume, all the more potent must have been the lesson of human effort paralyzed, and of human industry and achievement absolutely annulled.

In contrast with this, it was but a cold and poor experience to wander among the ruins of the great fire; and yet these, once seen, had a dreary fascination that drew you again and again and enforced their tragic interest, so that to him who gazed upon the scene, the idle people who seemed to spend their days amidst the ruins, and to look and look, and stand and stand, and apparently suffer no change from hour to hour save as they shifted the weight of the body from one leg to the other, were not at all inexplicable.

I first caught sight of that chaos on the Monday night after the fire, when Washington Street was still drenched from the engines that screamed and panted at every corner, and launched their streams into the semi-luminous fog-bank beyond, out of which dimly rose a broken wall here and there, with hollow windows and a certain solemn gauntness of outline. The approaches forbidden by many bayonets, the obscurity of the streets still without gas, — the shops being ineffectively lit with kerosene and candles, — and the recent arrival of twenty-seven car-loads of New York roughs (all happily slain by the police and chemically annihilated during the night), made it undesirable to inspect the ruins then but a mild, fair afternoon of an early day following invited whatever Volneys could get a pass from the Chief of Police to come and meditate upon them.

A great many Volneys, of both sexes and all ages, seemed to have got passes, so that there was nothing more notable amidst the ruins than the number of people who had as little business there as myself. Here and there were occupants of the former buildings, at work in getting out their safes; or—if their places were, as often happened, still masses of red-hot brick—listlessly kicking the rubbish or picking up bits of iron or other fantastically shapen fragments of the wreck, gazing at them vacantly a moment, and then flinging them away. On one hopeless heap of ruin I saw a young man standing with his wife and looking silently about him; some one came up and saluted him by name with a cheery “How’s biz?” “Never better; tip-top!” he answered in a voice which somehow failed to make one gay. “Let me introduce you to my wife. Thought we’d come down to my store and have a look at the improvements.” The wife gave her hand with but a wan smile.

But most of the people, I say, had nothing to do there but get in the way of the firemen whose steamers were working at a score of points, and then get out of it as the flying streams of water were shifted from one seething mass to another. They seemed to be nearly all relic-hunters, and they were nearly all happy and anxious in some bit of blackened crockery or warped ironmongery, which they had secured with great trouble and were afraid would be taken from them at the lines by the police. The most concerned were women who appealed to such blue coats as they met, to know if they could keep this or that, — women with something remorselessly detective of unfashion and second-rateness in their dress, or in the style of the young men who had brought them down into the burnt district for a holiday. It seemed to be quite a trysting-place, like

The hawthorn bush, with seats beneath the shade
For talking age and whispering lovers made.

But to turn from these and take in with one long gaze the ruin around was an experience never to be matched again. Imagine a space of sixty or seventy acres, strewn in wildest confusion with bricks and mortar, broken columns of iron, and lumps of granite; a hundred unextinguished fires still blazing brightly above the wreck or smouldering under sullen volumes of smoke, or shooting up clouds of steam as the engine jets were turned upon them, and making a tremulous, dim red haze, through which the tall chimney of some vanished manufactory rose monumental, and from point to point loomed the fragments of yet upright wall. These were mostly portions of two sides knit together by a corner; sometimes they were quite broad at the base and narrowed at the top; sometimes a façade rose nearly whole; but in all cases, save along Washington Street, they were brick, and not the granite in which we had so much trust and pride. It was curious, indeed, to see the state to which this faithless stone had been reduced by the fire. It was scales and coarse sand under foot, it impeded the steps in lumpish balls and ovals it was scattered about in shapeless masses, and it nowhere kept the sharpness or design that the chisel had so laboriously given it; while the poor plebeian and despised brick, which in our vain-glory we had hoped to see wholly displaced by it, not only gave the ruin picturesqueness and dignity, but approved its own strength where it lay in red-hot masses above the subterranean fires, still keeping its form. Far up along the cornice of the new Post-Office, the granite ornamentation resembles so much sculptor’s clay, in which some design had been studied and then crushed and smeared by a rejecting hand, — so soft and fictile has the fire made it seem. Some of the lower columns look as if hewn by an axe, and recalled to my average ignorance the appearance of certain pillars in the Forum at Rome, which I had marvelled to see so hacked and chopped, as I supposed. Indeed, one could not behold the burnt district without being reminded of whatever time-honored ruins he had looked upon, though, of course, Pompeii was most forcibly suggested, with here and there a touch of Rome; and I trust it was with an excusable vanity and a due remembrance of the sore adversity which paid for the sensation, that I perceived that Boston ruined as effectively as the famous cities of antiquity. A score of centuries might, but for the steamers and the policemen, (the relic-hunters were not at all discordant,) have been supposed to have consecrated the scene by their lapse, so solemnly did those broken walls rise against the pale blue evening sky and let the tenderness of an almost Italian twilight show through their speculationless windows.

This sense of antiquity in the scene removed to a remote period the days when I used, now and then, to give myself the pleasure of a stroll through Franklin Street down into Winthrop Square, and dwell fondly upon the grandiose beauty of the architecture. It looked so solid and perpetual, so free from all meanness of haste or material, that I fancied it somehow typical of Boston at its best: thoroughly substantial and impressively adapted to its use, and yet liking to be handsome and admirable. Those superb seats of commerce were really so many palaces; in Italy they would have been called so; if one had come upon them there he would have turned curiously to his guide-book for their name and history; and outside of Italy I do not know where else one was to find any single group of edifices more noble in aspect. It was fine, too, that this beauty should be devoted to business, and that the homes of these merchants, however elegant, should not compare in architectural magnificence with the places where they met for traffic; there was something original and authentic in that. But what gave the crowning sense of satisfaction in it was its perfect security. “Ah!” you said to your friend, the stranger whom you led through this part of Boston, — slowly that it might grow upon him and crush him in his miserable assumptions on behalf of New York, or Philadelphia, or Chicago, or St. Louis, — “there is nothing can touch it, except an earthquake.” You showed him again all that luxury of sculptured granite and slated roof. “Every inch fire-proof; you see. The whole city might burn up, and you’d merely suffer with cold, down here.”

And at present Franklin Street and Congress Street and Summer Street and Winthrop Square have less to show for their former splendor than the Street of Plenty in Pompeii.

Many sites are separable from the others by the lines of broken walls, which lie fallen inwards. Tangled amidst the several heaps are the warped and twisted gas-pipes and other iron-work used in the complicated machinery of a modern house; and everything else is utterly consumed. As you look upon the scene, the obliteration of the cities of old, far more strongly built than the solidest part of Boston, is comprehensible as it never was before. Leave these ruins to the winters and summers of a hundred years, and nature would hide them so well that the owl and the antiquary would ask no more congenial haunt. A thousand years, and Baalbec or Palmyra would be as a flourishing metropolis to the Burnt District of Boston.

But in the mean time we walk about those streets on which the workmen are clearing a difficult way, and try to fix in mind the details of a picture which not nature, but reviving business, will soon hide from us. They are very meagre, indeed. Here and there is a safe standing open at a corner and boldly handbilled with “Look at it! one hundred hours in the fire!” and you admire its soundness, and turn your compassionate eyes from the condition of other safes which lurk unplacarded in the wreck and have apparently yielded up their contents in the form of charcoal. One very small wooden building boasts itself the first of the fledgling phœnixes to rise from the ashes, and, having risen, has evidently nothing to do. Many rude signs direct the passer to localities where businesses have begun anew, and some of these are funny, as “Removed on account of the heat,” and other serious ones are quite as sad as if they were funny. Nothing in the way of a jest is so happy, I fancy, as that legend on a tottering corner, inscribed before the lire, and still legible, “Warfield’s Cold Water Soap. Try it, will you!” Perusing this, you strive with the associations of the place, which imply that it was a fire-proof material, and that if the Mayor and Chief of the Fire Department had laid in a sufficient supply the conflagration would have been promptly checked.

Here and there they are getting out rolls of scorched and saturated dry goods; in one place I see a great pile of sodden overcoats; odorous bits of leather kick about under foot, and the ways are very sloppy from the engines and fire-butts. In one place they are pulling down a wall which flings itself to pieces in the air long before it touches the ground, like a column of falling water dispersed in spray.

These are the sights all day long. There are other particulars, however, that one notices, such as the exceeding smallness of the sites on which those mercantile palaces lately towered. The fronts are incredibly narrow, and the depth of the lots far less than it used to look. The whole space burnt over has suffered a like diminution. It used to be a good walk from Bedford Street to State, but now one traverses the area between with no feeling of distance, and a space nearly a third larger than both the Common and the Public Garden does not seem half so great. All local associations are destroyed, of course, and one passes strange by the most familiar places. This heightens the confused, half-doubting sense with which you regard the ruins; you understand theoretically that this melancholy chaos was once the most magnificent part of Boston, but really it might be any other city of any other time. It relates itself as I have hinted to the storied and touristed ruins of old, and it is hard to believe that it is other than the mere spectacle that these have become, that the men upon whom its disaster has fallen are all about us, alive to their loss, and summoning their energies to repair it. You know well enough how far and in what undreamt-of directions the fire darted its destroying flames, consuming this widow’s portion and that orphan’s slender heritage; you know that it has devoured the prosperity, not only of the young and strong and hopeful, but of ageing men who trusted that their work was nearly done, who had earned the repose to which they looked forward, and who must now return to their blasted enterprises with the flagging spirits of declining years. But it is not in the presence of the smoking ruins that you can think of the loss, the sorrow, the despondency that they would imply. The community is astir with resolution to repair and rebuild, and begin again, and forget, and you think how soon it will all appear as a vision of uneasy slumber, and you cannot bring the suffering to mind; even those whose lives were licked up by the ravening flames are as little in your compassion as the dead whose dust was quickened with long-forgotten heat in the crypt of old Trinity.

But for this unreality in them, I could not easily forgive myself for looking at the ruins in an æsthetic rather than a sympathetic mood, or for enjoying as I did a moonlight ramble through them, while they were yet in the first week of their desolation.

There was nothing more alien to our wonted life in the striking traits of that week than the occupation of our streets by the citizen soldiers, who patrolled them by night and guarded the lines enclosing the Burnt District night and day. Whether they were tramping down the pave to the beat of their drums, or picturesquely grouped in front of the City Hall, or about those places where the municipality dispensed hot coffee and other refreshments, they always gave that strangeness which our nature craves to the aspect of the city, and made one feel himself a personage in dramatic events. The mounted officer out of whose way you precipitated yourself bestowed a tragic dignity upon you by almost riding over you. But good as these good and brave fellows were by daylight, they needed the moon to bring out what was most impressive in their presence; and as my friend and I presented our passes at one of the lines, we could not repress a thrill as the moonlight glinted upon the bayonet of the sentinel who admitted us. We even admired the officer who called us back, and made us observe that our passes, lacking the signature of the commanding military authority, were not good for a moonlight stroll among the ruins. Denied at one point, what was simpler than to try at another? Here a solitary soldier, not veteran in years at least, opposed us with the same objection. We represented our ignorance of the new order, and the impossibility of getting the countersign at that time of night. “Well, those are my orders,” said the sentry; “what’s the use of my being here, if I don’t obey them?” “That’s so,” we answered; “you must obey your orders.” The sentry was struck by our prompt assent to his logic; he saw that we were true men. “You can go in,” he said, and resumed his sleepless vigilance.

At other points we found the guard lounging about bivouac fires which they had kindled in the strange, desolated street, and taking with superb effect of light and shade the ruddy glare on their accoutrements, their jolly faces, and their outstretched hands, while all round them steamed and smoked the ruin in the pale lustre of the moon, and away by the water-side flashed the gleeful blaze of the mounds of burning coal. As we strolled up and down the lonely avenues we met a policeman on his beat, or a patrol of soldiers; and we came again and again upon the steamers at their work, each with its little group of firemen, and each sending up with its hoarse respirations black volumes of smoke, shot through and through with golden sparks. Afar off, a column of steam mounting phantasmal into the moonlight told where each jet of water descended. But for these infrequent sights and sounds, the whole Burnt District was empty and silent. All mean details were lost, and the spectacle had no elements that were not grand and simple. The gaunt and haggard walls, that climbed and seemed to tremble over the desolation now stood black shadows against the moon, and now faintly caught its light through the wavering veils of smoke and vapor as our passing steps shifted the perspective, and the tall edifices that surrounded the place threw a deep shadow upon the border and would not let us see where the destruction ended and began. It was a scene that refused to relate itself to the city of our daily knowledge; its sad magic estranged whoever looked upon it, and made him for the moment a spirit of other lands and ages revisiting the ruins of remotest time.

Why then could we not be content with this poetic transmutation? Why must the Shop tower insolently up from that solemn scene, and remind us that if we were going to describe it our picture would lack its finest effect unless we could get the ruins of Trinity Church in, with the moon somewhere looking through them? We deliberately set about the capture of this effect; we walked from this side to that, we went up and down the street; we advanced in one direction as far as the houses would let us, in another till we were repelled by the guard. But it was in vain. The moon and the ruin declined to lend themselves to our paltry purpose. With serene and sad dignity they refused to group, and we left them with something like what I conjecture must be the feelings of a baffled Interviewer.